So why all the hullabaloo about wanting the southern borderlands and much of the West anyway? Didn’t the U.S. already have enough land for everyone to become the yeoman farmer of Thomas Jefferson’s dreams? Probably, but as far-fetched as it may sound, the land owned by the United States and “acquired” from Native Americans was not enough. After Mexico had won its freedom from Spain, it outlawed slavery in Texas. But Texans were pretty big fans of slavery so there were demands from within and without the state for the United States to annex Texas. In 1836, Texas won its independence from Mexico and really, really wanted to join America. Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren weren’t big on the idea so they resisted. Neither really wanted to start a war with Mexico. That would all change with John Tyler.
Tyler was elected president in 1840, and while it would not be correct to say that Jackson and Van Buren were not big on slavery (they were just more politically paranoid), Tyler was a bigger fan and by 1844, an agreement made Texas eligible for admission as a territory and opened the door for admission as a state. Under Tyler, Texas was annexed. This was big step, but if Tyler wanted a new slave state, it would take a true Texas fanboy, James K. Polk, to actually bring Texas into the fold. He would do that by starting the war Jackson and Van Buren never wanted.
In 1845 John O’ Sullivan (probably) coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” meaning that God gave the United States all of the continent to do with as it pleased. But there were large swaths of the continent where other governments disagreed with God. The first of those governments was Britain, which owned what is now Oregon, Washington State, and Idaho, plus most of British Columbia. Polk wanted all of it. His campaign slogan was “54 40 or fight,” referring to extending the U.S. border just north of Oregon. By bid 1846, the Polk administration had negotiated with Britain and through diplomacy came to a peaceful resolution in which Oregon would be divided along the 49th parallel. The other country not fully convinced that God was an American was Mexico. But through the same diplomacy between two countries that respected each other, the U.S. would reach a compromise with Mexico and acquire a reasonable portion of southwestern territory.
Nah, not really.
By 1846 the United States was in a full blown war with Mexico, determined to take all the land it wanted with as little negotiation as possible. Negotiating with a Catholic country full of brown people would mean admitting that Mexico was the political equal of the United States, which was not likely to happen. Through sheer force, the United States ended up with more than half a million square miles of territory, including what is now Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, New Mexico, and part of California. So how did the war start? I think a reminiscence from my life would be useful at this point.
When I was about 11 and my sister was about 6, we were playing on our own sides of the room (it was more peaceful for both of us if we did that). In the middle of the room was a toy we both wanted (I can’t remember what it was). Technically it was on my side of the room and technically my toy, but my sister wanted it anyway. A fight over the toy ensued. Eventually my father burst in and asked what happened. My sister claimed that the entire fight started WHEN I HIT HER BACK. My father gave me not only the toy she wanted, but told her to pick some more of mine. I lost a lot of toys.
So, if my sister was the United States, I was Mexico, the toy was the Nueces River in South Texas, and my father was the American people, then there you go. But in order for the analogy to work, you also have to picture my sister as a 300 pound, armed and angry five-year-old. In the War with Mexico, Mexico was pretty over matched. Mexico and the United States go to war.
Lots of war stuff happens.
In February of 1848, Mexico and the United States sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the war is over. But it is the treaty itself that will be so important to the history of the border with Mexico. First, it led to the final form of the continental United States (mostly. More on that soon).
Next, Mexico gave up all claims to Texas and recognized the Rio Grande as America’s southern boundary.
The U.S. did, though, throw a bone to Mexico and settle all claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico. But what did it all mean in terms of U.S. border enforcement? The answer lies in Article 11, which states:
“Considering that a great part of the territories, which, by the present treaty, are to be comprehended for the future within the limits of the United States, is now occupied by savage tribes, who will hereafter be under the exclusive control of the Government of the United States, and whose incursions within the territory of Mexico would be prejudicial in the extreme, it is solemnly agreed that all such incursions shall be forcibly restrained by the Government of the United States whensoever this may be necessary; and that when they cannot be prevented, they shall be punished by the said Government, and satisfaction for the same shall be exacted all in the same way, and with equal diligence and energy, as if the same incursions were meditated or committed within its own territory, against its own citizens.”
“It shall not be lawful, under any pretext whatever, for any inhabitant of the United States to purchase or acquire any Mexican, or any foreigner residing in Mexico, who may have been captured by Indians inhabiting the territory of either of the two republics; nor to purchase or acquire horses, mules, cattle, or property of any kind, stolen within Mexican territory by such Indians.”
“And in the event of any person or persons, captured within Mexican territory by Indians, being carried into the territory of the United States, the Government of the latter engages and binds itself, in the most solemn manner, so soon as it shall know of such captives being within its territory, and shall be able so to do, through the faithful exercise of its influence and power, to rescue them and return them to their country. or deliver them to the agent or representative of the Mexican Government. The Mexican authorities will, as far as practicable, give to the Government of the United States notice of such captures; and its agents shall pay the expenses incurred in the maintenance and transmission of the rescued captives; who, in the meantime, shall be treated with the utmost hospitality by the American authorities at the place where they may be. But if the Government of the United States, before receiving such notice from Mexico, should obtain intelligence, through any other channel, of the existence of Mexican captives within its territory, it will proceed forthwith to effect their release and delivery to the Mexican agent, as above stipulated.”
And finally, this:
“For the purpose of giving to these stipulations the fullest possible efficacy, thereby affording the security and redress demanded by their true spirit and intent, the Government of the United States will now and hereafter pass, without unnecessary delay, and always vigilantly enforce, such laws as the nature of the subject may require. And, finally, the sacredness of this obligation shall never be lost sight of by the said Government, when providing for the removal of the Indians from any portion of the said territories, or for its being settled by citizens of the United States; but, on the contrary, special care shall then be taken not to place its Indian occupants under the necessity of seeking new homes, by committing those invasions which the United States have solemnly obliged themselves to restrain.”
All of this meant three things:
- The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo meant that as of 1848, the US military would control not only the interior of the newly acquired territory, but the border
- The army would prevent incursions into Mexico by Indians
- In other words, the initial goal of border enforcement was to protect Mexico
Article 11 would not last, of course, but Mexico was in no position to argue. But they would try. The first big argument would be over the Mesilla Valley, which both countries claimed.
Mexico wanted compensation for Indian attacks in the area. The U.S. claimed that it did not agree to compensation (the treaty is pretty vague on the subject). Even more important, this was the only route for a southern transcontinental railroad to go through Mexican territory and Mexico had evicted U.S. citizens from the Mesilla Valley. Governor William “Not on My Watch” Lane of New Mexico unilaterally declared the Mesilla Valley part of the U.S. territory of New Mexico. So the United States sent in Lt. James Gadsden (who, in unrelated news was interested in developing a southern transcontinental railroad and needed Mesilla Valley to complete those plans) to negotiate. Gadsden had three goals in his negotiations with Mexican president Santa Anna. First, he intended to renegotiate a border that provided a route for a southern railroad (it’s still a mystery why Gadsden found that so important). Second, he wanted to arrange for a release of U.S. financial obligations for Native American attacks and third he sought to settle the monetary claims between the countries related to the Garay project (Mexico granted Mexican Don José de Garay the right to build colonies for Americans on an isthmus in the disputed territory with capital from the New Orleans Company. Fearing the colonists would rebel as those in Texas had, former Mexican President Juan Ceballos revoked the grant, angering U.S. investors).
This is where it gets crazy.
The United States got everything it wanted and the FINAL contours of the continental United States were established. But the interesting part is that the United States government agreed to work toward preventing American raids along Mexico’s border and Mexico voided U.S. responsibility for Native American attacks. This effectively voided article 11 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo but it also meant that the origins of federal border enforcement were in keeping Americans from illegally crossing into Mexico.
To quote Florence Johnston, “ain’t that a pip?”
This was all super interesting for me, but it is not in my dissertation. I am not sure why. I do go into detail about the California Gold Rush in 1849, but only in relation to Chinese exclusion. I think the problem was that I had started my research with Chinese immigration so moving from 1849 California to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 kind of made sense, especially as the Act forced Chinese to attempt to enter the country across the border since the ports were pretty well controlled. But that meant that taking a broader view of my dissertation means that I kind of imply that nothing of any real importance was occurring along the border until 1894 when the first border stations were built. I knew that wasn’t true of course, but I developed tunnel vision of a sort, focusing too much on the federal presence along the border with Mexico, since there was minimal federal presence there before 1894 outside of a few customs inspectors and the military. I realize now that was a mistake.
So the book will have more in the way of prologue. There is so much of importance occurring along the border from 1848 on and I need to describe it. I am writing more about the War with Mexico, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, all of which contributed to not only the Chinese Exclusion Act, but the hardening of the border with Mexico. The groundwork was there for the 1894 border stations and understanding not only that groundwork, but also the Texas Rangers and Reconstruction in deeper ways than I explored in my dissertation means a better understanding of what’s going on now. And that is the entire point.